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The Unloved (Samantha Morton, 2009)
Initially, The Unloved does not appear to be what is commonly derided as an “actors’ movie”. The first dialogue scene is delivered in one extended take, exteriors are filmed using extreme long shots that dwarf the actors, and there are quietly expressionistic touches everywhere. After Lucy arrives at the group home, there’s a shift, however, and the film becomes increasingly focused on character over visuals. From this point, The Unloved alternates artfully composed tableaux with mock vérité sequences. The general feel of the film is not far removed from the Morton vehicle Morvern Callar, especially in a late-film party scene, but Morton tends to make her protagonist’s feelings easier to read that those of the heroine in Lynne Ramsay’s movie.
This is a film that begins by yearning for deliverance. It opens with a prayer, and the first image of Lucy frames her, lying prone, in a virtual cross made of shag carpeting. In its early scenes, there is a positively spiritual weight attributed to even the dust particles shown filtering through the sunlight in this Catholic schoolgirl’s unhappy home. Morton here casts a quiet spell, but soon circumstances begin to strip away Lucy’s, and the movie’s, moving spirituality. As The Unloved proceeds, its lyricism grows clumsier. When it shows Lucy tentatively reaching out toward a fragile spider’s web you might feel the movie is growing a tad too precious, but when she’s sitting in a graveyard next to a grazing doe, you definitely will.
Morton is doing something admirable, if not original, here, straining for the same brand of melancholy that can be found in the work of Terence Davies, hoping to find the same unlikely resilience that Davies found in his bittersweet depictions of childhood. Several recent first features by accomplished British filmmakers have attempted the same, such as Duane Hopkins’ Better Things and Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher. If Morton’s film lacks the vivid stylization of these works, or the overwhelming ability to achieve catharsis that defined Davies’ best films, it still seems to have been constructed by a talented mind with good intentions. At the very least, it offers viewers Molly Windsor’s quiet performance as Lucy. Whether hiding her shame as she “forgets” her gym clothes (in an effort to hide her bruises) or quietly judging her rambunctious roommate, Windsor is a stoic screen presence with enough conviction to ground the film.
The great irony of The Unloved is that Lucy only seems to come unmoored once she is placed under the control of her caseworkers. It is during her stay in the group home, as she is left in limbo in-between schools and is virtually ignored by her supposed caretakers, that she seems put most at risk. Lucy is clearly a good kid, but though her sixteen year old roommate, a presumed veteran of the foster care world, she’s exposed to sex, drugs, and violence. It’s to Morton’s credit that as Lucy moves from school, to group home, to prison cell, to police car, to the other side of the counselor’s table, the film never becomes particularly schematic. Were it not for the tinkling music box on the soundtrack, which sentimentalizes more than any other element, one would have a difficult time pinpointing that there’s a problem at all in most scenes. That Lucy is not overtly broken, yet still is in desperate need of help, might be precisely the point, however.
The Unloved is a promising debut for director Morton, but it’s sometimes too sensitive where it should be insightful. Lucy’s inherent goodness might increase audience sympathy, but it limits drama. While her tone is more subdued than alarmist, Morton’s aim here is to confront the carelessness of the system (hence the accusatory stare of the final shot). Because of this, she’s apprehensive about painting Lucy as a problem child. Lucy’s blamelessness makes her situation tragic, to be sure, but in focusing on such a child Morton also dodges a question about the British social services’ function for many of the more troubled children that it assists.